Adding the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to the U.S. government’s capture-or-kill list has raised some questions. First, is this the way to treat an American citizen? Second, is capturing or killing preferable?
There is little to no doubt that Awlaki, believed to be hiding in Yemen, is a major security threat. Counterterrorism officials describe him as a charismatic figure who has lured young Muslims into a dozen plots against the United States. They have connected him with the accused Times Square bomber, the U.S. Army major accused of last November’s fatal shooting at Fort Hood, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas, and two of the 9-11 terrorists.
He was born in New Mexico in 1971, and was an imam at mosques in California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., from 1990 to early 2000, preaching a message peace and cooperation between the United States and the radical Islamic movement. Then he evolved into a pro-terrorism firebrand, declaring on March 17, that “jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.”
His CD sermons have been distributed widely, most of them moderate in tone but in one recording seeming to approve suicidal violence. From his hiding place in the mountains of southern Yemen, he continues to incite violence through videos and his website.
U.S. authorities consider him a central figure in the growing rash of terrorism against the United States and are said to have placed him on their secret hit list, often used as a basis for attempted killing by unmanned remote-controlled aircraft.
Official killing is nothing new. Officials call it “targeted killing” rather than assassination, which has been prohibited by executive orders signed by Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan that remain in effect.
Still, official assassination of an American citizen is rare. An unpublished death sentence based on secret intelligence is hardly due process of law. But this targeting may be justified by showing that Awlaki is a direct participant in a conflict, that is, terrorist operations against the United States.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has proposed a bill that would strip American citizenship from anyone who has materially supported a terrorist organization or hostilities against the United States or its allies. The bill appears to violate a 1958 decision in which the Supreme Court said that “citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior” and “the deprivation of citizenship is not a weapon that the government may use to express its displeasure at a citizen’s conduct, however reprehensible that conduct may be.”
Based on the court’s rulings, the best way to deal with Awlaki is to capture him and prosecute him in the U.S. criminal justice system, not kill him and make him a martyr to be used in recruiting more terrorists.